IN PARTS of New York city, if you know what to look for, you will find a vast and quasi-legal transport network operating in plain sight. It is made up of “dollar vans”, private 15-passenger vehicles that serve neighbourhoods lacking robust public transport. With an estimated 125,000 daily riders, they constitute a network larger than the bus systems in some big cities, including Dallas and Phoenix.
Van drivers, like all entrepreneurs, have recognised a market and met demand. Some shuttle between Chinese communities not connected directly by public transport: for example, Flushing in Queens, Manhattan’s Chinatown and Sunset Park in Brooklyn. Others serve Caribbean communities in Brooklyn and south-eastern Queens. The Utica and Flatbush Avenue corridors patrolled by the vans in Brooklyn are the borough’s busiest and third-busiest bus routes, respectively. These vans offer what New York City buses fail to provide: speed and reliability. They are also cheaper, at $2 per trip.
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Eric Goldwyn, an urban planner, compared a week’s worth of ridership data from the B41 bus route along Flatbush Avenue with average travel times of dollar vans making the same trip. Buses took an hour with a standard deviation of 15 minutes, meaning that 68% of all rides lasted between 45 minutes and 75 minutes. That’s a big window. Vans took just 43 minutes with a standard deviation of five minutes.
New York City’s dollar vans trace their origins to 1980, when a massive public-transport strike sent customers looking for alternatives. Private vans surfaced to meet demand. The strike eventually ended, but the vans kept going. In 1993 the city took regulatory control over the industry and became responsible for licensing, inspections and insurance. In exchange for a licence to operate, drivers had to accept onerous legal requirements which few have complied with since.
Technically dollar vans can accept only pre-arranged calls and must maintain a passenger list. The idea was to protect yellow taxis’ street-hail privilege and, according to Mr Goldwyn, elbow the vans out of business. But vans are flexible and spontaneous by their very nature; the street-hail prohibition goes ignored. In Brooklyn drivers cruise up and down Utica and Flatbush Avenues, tapping their horn to attract fares. Passengers wave and jump in, and the vans keep on rolling. Without street hails there would be no business.
Dollar vans—even the 480 licensed ones—have been operating more or less illegally for decades. An estimated 500 more operate unlicensed. Lax enforcement means that the “pirates”, as they are called, have little incentive to go above board. “Why drive a name brand when you can drive a regular vehicle and make more money?” asks Winston Williams, whose struggle to pay insurance in the face of rogue competition forced him to shrink his fleet by 21 drivers. Several bills before the City Council attempt to close the gap between law and practice by allowing street hails and ramping up enforcement.
Dollar vans—nimble and reactive as they are—might teach the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) something about the needs and preferences of passengers. The vans are fast because they make fewer stops than buses, which tend to load and unload every two blocks. City buses are slowed down further by the lack of all-door boarding and well-enforced bus lanes. “There’s a serious degree of policy inattention to operating the bus system in an effective way,” says Jon Orcutt of TransitCentre, a research group. Investment is much lower than in the subway, which carries 5.7m riders daily and commands $14.2 billion from the MTA’s five-year capital plan. Buses, which carry 2.1m riders daily, get just $2 billion. As long as the city neglects its buses, dollar vans will be there to mind the gap.